Scientists sound the alarm on Earth Day

Originally published on April 21, 2019 in the Medford Mail Tribune

south kalmiopsis dellasalaBy Dominick A. DellaSala, William J. Ripple and Franz Baumann

Another Earth Day is here and it’s time to see how the planet’s life-support systems are doing and what it means for Oregonians.

Since clean, renewable energy solutions are becoming increasingly available, we remain hopeful. Given the risk, though, that they might not be deployed at scale, and because the planet is creeping dangerously close to a tipping point, it’s hard not to be alarmed.

For decades, scientists have been monitoring the planet’s systems like the warning lights on a car’s dashboard. We scan satellite images of humanity’s growing ecological footprint on the world’s forests, rivers, and oceans that is setting the stage for the biggest extinction event since the dinosaurs went extinct. We use thousands of weather stations to track rising global temperatures and super-computers that forecast catastrophic impacts awaiting future generations if we ignore these telltale signs.

In 1992, we were among 1,700 scientists that issued a warning to humanity that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided.” In 2017, more than 21,000 scientists from 184 countries joined us in issuing a second warning that conditions had far worsened and we were running out of time.

In Oregon, rising temperatures means more extreme fire weather (hotter, drier, windier). Smoke now pours into the Rogue Valley from fires in British Columbia. Winters deliver more rain, less snow, and flooding is impacting coastal communities.

Fortunately, forward-thinking members of Congress, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey D-Mass., recently introduced a bold resolution that responds to the climate challenge at scale. Aptly named a Green New Deal, it is as ambitious as President Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. It comprehends the magnitude of climate change and the pending extinction crisis in their totality and with urgency.

Supported by much of Oregon’s congressional delegation, the resolution recognizes that environmental policies are an important part of a broader social and economic fabric that must be woven together to transition the economy to renewable energy empowered by innovation, a “green” workforce and proactive businesses.

While there are gaps in the approach, by calling for carbon-free energy, clean air and water, and an economic system that addresses inequalities, it is the most comprehensive and properly scaled response yet to the scientists’ warnings. The message is spreading from Ashland to the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy committed to emissions reductions set forth in the historic Paris Climate Change Agreement that our climate-denying president refuses to acknowledge.

As a first priority, there is a pressing need for Congress and state legislators to each follow suit with legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions with a fair, equitable and effective carbon pricing scheme that also enlists nature in climate solutions. The Clean Energy Jobs Bill in the Oregon Legislature is poised to do just that but it needs to also include forestry reforms that have a major climate benefit.

Most importantly, Oregon’s coastal rainforests and older forests throughout the state are nature’s climate solutions, scrubbing vast quantities of carbon from the atmosphere that helps keep the planet from overheating.

The longer we keep carbon in the forests, the better it is for the climate. Lawmakers need to introduce measures that protect older forests on public lands and increase the time between logging cycles on private lands to grow and store more carbon in forests. Landowners practicing climate-smart forestry should be rewarded through financial incentives.

Communities also need to prepare for unavoidable consequences of today’s carbon emissions that will distress future generations. For the Rogue Valley, this means avoiding the tragic losses that took place in Paradise, California, where entire homes burned down while surrounding trees were left unscorched. No amount of logging in the surroundings could have prepared homes that ignited when embers from fires miles away landed on rooftops. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s Wildfire Council needs to focus on proven home-hardening measures like building with fire-resistant roofs along with thinning flammable vegetation around homes. Containing housing sprawl, improving clean air standards, providing smoke shelters and indoor air filtration systems are climate-smart responses.

Guided by science, policy makers need to solicit input from social-environmental justice, labor, indigenous, “green” businesses, and conservation groups to fine-tune and activate the Green New Deal that along with the Clean Energy Jobs Bill prepare us for the inconvenient truth of climate change.

Let’s make this Earth Day the start of turning the planet’s warning lights off for future generations.


Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., chief scientist for the Geos Institute in Ashland, has over 200 science publications, was on the Oregon Global Warming Commission’s Task Force on Forest Carbon, and is currently a member of the Oregon Department of Forestry’s forest carbon stakeholder group appointed by Gov. Kate Brown. William J. Ripple, Ph.D., distinguished professor of ecology at Oregon State University, was the lead author of the 2017 World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice scientistswarning. forestry.oregonstate. edu). Franz Baumann, Ph.D., former United Nations assistant secretary-general, is a visiting research professor at New York University.

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